DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said his government will allow international experts access to its chemical weapons sites, but cautioned in an interview broadcast Monday that rebels might block them from reaching some of the locations.
In an interview with Chinese state TV, Assad said his government is dedicated to implementing a Russia-U.S. agreement to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. The accord, brokered last week in Geneva, promises inspectors on the ground in Syria by November.
The government, he said, won't have "any problem" taking experts to sites where the weapons are kept but some of the places might be difficult to reach because of ongoing fighting between the Syrian army and rebels battling the regime, whom he called "gunmen."
"I'm referring to places where gunmen exist. Those gunmen might want to stop the experts' arrival," Assad told China's CCTV.
Assad's government met a first deadline under a U.S.-Russia agreement aimed at swiftly ridding Syria of its chemical arsenal, submitting last week what was supposedly the full list of its chemical weapons and production facilities to the U.N. agency so they can be secured and destroyed.
While on the ground in Syria, the experts will complete an initial assessment and arrange for the destruction of all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons. All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
In the interview with the Chinese TV filmed Sunday in the Syrian capital, Damascus, Assad said Syria has already handed over a list of chemical weapons to an international agency. He said his government will ensure that experts arrive "at the places where we produce and store our chemical weapons."
Technical experts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Saturday they were reviewing disclosures from Syria about its chemical weapons program. The content of the Syrian declarations has not been made public.
U.S. officials said last week that Washington and Moscow agreed that Syria had roughly 1,100 tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents, such as sulfur and mustard gas, and nerve agents like sarin.
The revelations of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal became public after an August attack near Damascus that the U.S. and its Western allies say has contained a nerve agent and killed 1,400 people. Activists groups say the death toll of the Aug. 21 attack in eastern Ghouta that brought Washington to the brink of military intervention in Syria was significantly lower.
In the aftermath of the attack, a U.N. report concluded that sarin had been used.
Meanwhile, an al-Qaida group in Syria said one of its top commanders was killed in an ambush by rival, Western-backed rebels in a northern Syria province.